Creativity and Depression

Is there a link between them?

by Douglas McBride

 

There has long been a link between creativity and depression. Pain and sorrow seem to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration for poetry, love songs and novels. Famous artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Kurt Cobain and, recently, Robin Williams all suffered from depression and ultimately chose to take their own lives. Is all this just a coincidence or is there an actual link between creativity and depression?

Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses and a widespread issue in today’s society. An estimated 5% of the entire global population suffer from depression and the number of patients diagnosed are continuously rising. Depression can show itself in a variety of different forms including dysthymia, bipolar disorder and psychotic depression.

…depression affects as much as 7 % of the adult population in the United States.

The most common type is called major depression and affects as much as 7% of the adult population in the United States. Some symptoms of depression include extreme sadness, lack of energy, changes in eating or sleeping habits and thoughts of death and suicide. To get an official diagnosis the symptoms must last at least two weeks. Some patients suffer only from one episode of major depression, however the condition tends to return throughout the patient’s life.

But has creativity got anything to do with it? Well, obviously not all creative people suffer from depression and neither is every depressed person a creative genius. However, there are notable statistical differences between creative professions, for example authors, musicians, actors etc., compared to the general population when it comes to diagnoses for depression and other mental illnesses. Among creative professions there is a clear overrepresentation of bipolar disorder and authors are almost twice as likely to commit suicide as the average person.

Although the link between depression and creativity is recognized, the underlying mechanics are still unclear. One reason for the high prevalence of depression could be the nature of the creative professions. A lot of artists have a production-based income, meaning that their financial situation is directly affected by how well they produce. This may lead to performance anxiety, stress and depression. This, in addition with the high rates of alcoholism and substance abuse among artists, could explain why there is a link.

However, recent studies suggest that the link has to do with genetics. Research has found that there not only is a higher prevalence of bipolar disorder among creative professions, but that authors, musicians etc. also have a higher prevalence of diagnosed bipolar disorders amongst close relative. This could mean that the healthy relatives, with similar characteristics as the ones diagnosed with bipolar disorder, are more likely to have creative professions which could indicate that certain genes play a role in both creativity and depression.

Interestingly, enough studies have found changes in the thalamus when testing divergent thinking that are similar to, however not as significant, those found in people with psychotic disorders. Changes in the thalamus could affect the brain’s ability to filter out non-vital information, which could lead to more divergent thinking. One of the ways of testing creativity is to give the person two minutes to list as many uses as possible for an everyday item, such as a paperclip. If a person’s thalamus would filter out fewer thoughts, one could theoretically come up with more ways to use the paperclip compared to someone with a normally functioning filtration. This could mean that someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder is better at divergent thinking, i.e. more creative than the normal person.

The overrepresentation of bipolar disorder in creative professions is clear and can therefore be seen as evidence of the connection between the two. But contrary to popular belief, it is not necessarily that creative people are more likely to be depressed, but rather that the people suffering from depression tend to be more creative.

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